at the Reconciliation Eucharists
We are at war in Iraq, we are still fighting for peace in Afghanistan, and the world’s conflicts continue unabated. Even the Anglican Communion is in the midst of some pretty profound disunity, with primates lobbing fiats of disfellowship, edicts of impaired communion, and, when those fail, intercontinental ballistic bishops. This is not the friendly rivalry of Wolf Pack basketball or Rebels football. It is the grievous division of Joseph and his brothers.
I’ve been reading Tom Ehrich’s daily meditations for years, most recently as email. His recent insight has been that the great sin of the church is the desire to be right. The desire to be right is probably the underlying cause of most of the divisions we experience, in church and out. The siblings who won’t communicate are often nursing old wounds over who was right and wrong. As a nation we’re sorting out who was right and wrong about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. The rhetoric since last summer’s General Convention has often been about who’s right and who’s not.
Here in Nevada the deep divisions are conflicts between the old power of the northern end of the state and the upstarts in the south – isn’t it better to have deep and historical roots than the cancerous growth of Las Vegas? (or isn’t it better to have such a vibrant and exploding economy rather than the somewhat musty air of the cow counties?) Aren’t the congregations who employ seminary-trained clergy somehow better and more right than those who have come to employ the gifts of many members in providing local spiritual leadership? Believe me, the opposite opinion is held in many places! Not long ago, I heard a vestry member say, “well, I came from that parish over there, and, well, you know, this congregation is just …healthier.” For healthier, you could substitute better, more correct, perfect, or right. There is an ancient instinct within us that says the way we live, or what we believe, is right, and therefore those folks over there must be wrong. That instinct is probably an ancient survival mechanism, one that predates higher consciousness. It’s part of what some of the psychologists call our “snake brain,” that part of us that kicks in before we start to think.
That snake brain is highly useful when it comes to saving our skins, because it does kick in before we have time to think. But it’s usually destructive when it comes to human relationships, because it only exacerbates turf wars. It’s the part of me that fires off when my airspace is violated by cigarette smoke – or when the passenger in the next seat on the airplane begins to overflow into mine. It’s the part of the brain that drives road rage. The more the conflict begins to resemble defending our bodies and our lives, the more difficult it becomes to respond out of some higher consciousness. It’s not impossible, but it takes a great deal of practice.
And practice is what we are about. What sort of religion do you practice? We won’t get it perfectly right until the Second Coming, but we also always have another opportunity. This community called the church is a laboratory for lovers. If we can learn to love each other here, we can transform the world. If we can begin to believe that we are loved for who we are, beyond all understanding and measure, maybe we can be a little less defensive, a little less snake-like, when we’re confronted with a threat.
At its best, Anglicanism has always held up comprehensiveness as one of its highest values. We don’t all have to agree. There can be more than one right answer. This turf is God’s, not ours, and it’s broader and more expansive – even greener – than we are capable of imagining. We have said, from our Celtic Christian beginnings, and explicitly from at least the time of Elizabeth I, that the middle way, the middle road, is the most important, because there is something vital to be gained and learned from the people on both shoulders. Gamaliel, the perennial pragmatist in the book of Acts, says, “well, what you’re about may not be right, but we’ll just wait and see what comes of it. If it is of God, then there won’t be any stopping it.”
God in Christ is our peace. In Jesus we are made into a body, one body. But we are not made into uniform creatures, all with the same characteristics, gifts, and ways of being. Can you imagine a football team made up only of quarterbacks? They’d lose every game. What happens when a farmer grows the same crop in the same field year after year? It quickly exhausts the fertility of the soil and/or succumbs to insects and diseases. George Orwell, in his novel 1984, began to imagine for us what a monochromatic human culture would look like. Such a society is totalitarian, prone to violence, and finds it very difficult to be creative or produce new life.
Yes, it may be more comfortable to live where everyone agrees with us, but it also quickly becomes pretty boring, stagnant, and dead. Living with people who disagree with us may be challenging, but it is the only route to creativity. The fruit of those challenging relationships will be far more abundant than any one of us could accomplish in isolation. When Jesus says that being angry with our brothers and sisters makes us liable to judgment, that’s what he means – when we’re consumed with rage, we lose our ability to really live, and to be creative builders of the Reign of God. When we insult and reject the people we disagree with, we just make it worse – we exile ourselves from that creative community of godliness. We put ourselves in hell.
Reconciliation takes a different kind of dying. If we want to learn to live with the folks who make us most angry, we have to learn to value the differences between us, and maybe even their hate toward us. Joseph said to the brothers who tried to kill him, “you meant it for harm, but God turned it to good.” Somewhere along the way Joseph let go of his fear, and he came to have some empathy for what his brothers were now experiencing.
Louie Crew, one of the great Anglican activists of recent years, put up a note on the web this week. He told the story of meeting a school chaplain years ago, a man who had been a prisoner of war on the River Kwai. Louie asked the chaplain how he had survived that brutal prison camp. Ernest Gordon replied, 'I practiced the discipline of remaking the face of each torturer into the face his mother had seen cuddling him in her arms,' he said. 'It is very difficult to be swallowed in bitterness when you can do that, and it is the bitterness that would have killed me, even had I lived.' (Through the Valley of the Kwai)
You may want to close your eyes for a minute.
Think of somebody whose opinions or actions or very self you reject, find repulsive, or someone with whom you are really angry. Maybe it’s a member of your family. Or someone in your congregation. Or the person next to you. It’s more difficult to engage with a person who is outside your usual sphere of living – like a politician or world leader – but it’s still possible. Hold that person in your mind’s eye. Look well. This is a child of God. This is God’s beloved, even if it’s not easy to see that just yet. If you can’t let go of your anger with this person right now, your prayer could be for understanding. “O God, let me see your image in this person I find so difficult. May this person see your image in me as well.”
Another invitation. Make this person the focus of your prayers this Holy Week. And when we come to celebrate the feast of the resurrection, maybe, just maybe, there will be some new life in that relationship.
The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori